Over the last decade, hundreds of newspapers have disappeared largely due to Big Tech’s disruption of the ad market. Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much when it comes to tech reform, whether it be content moderation or spinning off acquisitions, but they do seem to agree that local journalism needs saving.
On Friday, a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing focused on the way Google and Facebook distribute news, and a new bill introduced earlier this week has already found Republican support. It’s one of the biggest legislative threats to tech that’s come out of the years-long antitrust debate, and much of its political force comes from the precarious state of local journalism.
“The crisis in American journalism has become a real crisis in our democracy and civic life,” Cicilline said in his opening remarks Friday.
Ciciline’s bill, the “Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021,” would allow news organizations to collectively negotiate with platforms like Facebook and Google the terms in which their content is distributed online. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who leads the Senate’s antitrust panel, also sponsored the legislation in the Senate and Republicans, like Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), have already signed on in support of the bill as well.
“This bill is a step in the right direction to dethroning those digital kings,” Buck said in his opening remarks Friday. “It is not a subsidy for outlets, but rather a leveling of the playing field in favor of democracy and free expression.”
But while there was growing bipartisan support for the measure on Capitol Hill Friday, the real drama happened beyond the dais.
WHAT IT MEANS
There’s more pressure now than ever for Congress to act. In January, Google threatened to remove its search engine from Australia, responding to a new law that would force the tech giant to pay news publishers for their content. That law was approved in February, and Google quickly backed off to cut a deal with News Corp. and other publishers.
While this all was happening, Microsoft put out a statement in support of Australia’s efforts to protect publishers. “One thing is clear: while other tech companies may sometimes threaten to leave Australia, Microsoft will never make such a threat,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in the statement last month.
Smith was brought in as a witness for Friday’s hearing, announcing his support for Cicilline’s media negotiation bill. Moments before the hearing was set to begin, Google put out its own scathing statement against Microsoft, suggesting that the company was “making self-serving claims” that could “break the way the open web works in an effort to undercut a rival.”
Google has good reason to be afraid of this bill, especially in light of its Australia bluff. The Cicilline bill has bipartisan support, and its only the subcommittee’s first swing at Big Tech before they wrestle with more sweeping reforms.
Glenn Greenwald, former Intercept editor turned Substack newsletter writer, also testified at Friday’s hearing. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) focused his line of questioning at Greenwald, asking if he feared a bill like the one proposed would only cement the power of larger media firms while leaving local journalism in the dust.
“The concern I have is that the discussion in the legislation seems grounded in a premise that the only or the primary problem, to both local and national journalism, is that Google and Facebook are vacuuming up advertising revenue and that you simply fix that problem the problem of media failure will be rectified as well,” Greenwald said. “I think that until the problem that this subcommittee identified in its report is addressed head on, which is breaking up the monopoly powers of this industry, none of these problems will really be fixed.”
Cicilline went back at Greenwald, saying that his bill is just a first step. “The bill that, at least Mr. Buck and I have put forth… provides a temporary fix for a 48-month period. And in fact, anything these larger media companies would negotiate would be available to the smallest role newspaper in any city in town in America.”
He continued, “We’re not going to do either or. We’re going to do both.”
WHAT DIDN’T THEY ASK?
As Politico’s Cristiano Lima noted on Twitter, the committee hardly asked any questions about Facebook! Facebook had its own beef with Australia last month, removing the ability for some users and publishers to share news content in the country. In February, the Australian government agreed to several changes that would allow users to continue to publish news, so a thorough conversation on those concessions and how they could affect American users would have been beneficial.
The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust still has another hearing before it starts introducing legislation. Those bills are expected to land this spring. Klobuchar also told CNN this week that the Senate’s competition committee will also start holding its own hearings on tech’s dominance, looking into app store fees and news publishing. Those hearings have yet to be scheduled.